An historical digression on “what” and “how” in vocational discernment

In my last major post, I suggested that vocation can be understood as story — namely,

as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others—a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future.

Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota, by Be Here Main Street (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota

Vocation, in this approach, is one of the West’s master plots for making sense of life. This master plot has changed over the centuries, and its key insight—that it is more important to discern how to live than what to do—may be in danger of being lost.

In its modern forms, the vocational story can be understood in purely secular terms;  but in its origin, it represented a revolutionary recasting of an old Christian notion. Continue reading

Vocation Requires Imagination

A key element in discerning one’s vocation is a robust yet realistic imagination.  Yet as a recent New York Times piece helpfully explains, we’re far better at thinking about the present than anticipating the future. In fact, we often fail to imagine those aspects of our future that will matter the most.

"Why Books are Always Better than Movies," By Massimo Barbieri (Own work)
“Why Books are Always Better than Movies,” By Massimo Barbieri (Own work)

Our lack of imagination can affect how we think about our future, with regard to a whole range of vocational issues.  And of course, the vocational concern that is most prominently in the mind of many undergraduate students is that of their future employment.  But do we really know how to imagine ourselves into that particular company, that institution, that agency, that job?  A key point from the article:

Unsurprisingly, we found that promotions and raises were important for people both in their current job and in applying for future jobs. What was interesting, though, was that the majority cared a lot about present benefits (such as doing something interesting with people they like) in their current job, but they expected not to care very much about those things in their future jobs. When envisioning themselves in the future, they predicted that they would almost solely be driven by delayed benefits like salaries.

Why are people fully aware that present benefits are important in their current job, and yet expect not to care about those benefits in the future? Why, for example, does a student who cannot sit through a boring two-hour lecture think she would be satisfied by a boring but well-paying job?

Take a look. The lessons may strike you as obvious, but if we fail to activate our imaginations in thinking about our futures, we can easily be misled in the process of vocational discernment.

 

Photo:  GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Vocation as stories we tell ourselves about ourselves

One way to think of vocation is as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others — a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how illustration_at_title_a_in_just_so_stories_c1912we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future. No surprise, then, that a number of recent contributions to this project have focused on this topic.1

Our identity, both to ourselves and to others, often takes the form of a story. When asked, “who are you?” our first reply is usually with a name–our story’s title, as it were.illustration_at_title_b_in_just_so_stories_c1912 But if pressed for more than a name, we narrate some part of our life (or our aspirations for life looking to the future, as when a student discusses her major). Our story is always selective; we touch on the “plot changes,” the “turning points,” the central roles we play, the crucial events or revelatory experiences that, to our minds, made us who we are. However brief or extensive, we are our stories.

 

Metaphors for understanding narrative identity

This narrative understanding of identity has borrowed useful metaphors from the study of narrative in literature. We speak of scripts, plots, and roles, and the improvisation that draws on the “repertoire” one has seen, acquired, and rehearsed. These metaphors can help us understand Continue reading

Evangelical Engagement on Secular Campuses

Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College, interior view
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College, by Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
A recent opinion piece by Mary Worthen in the New York Times suggests that American evangelicals continue to adapt in creative ways to the secularization of the American college campus. Her article, which focuses primarily on large, private institutions in which nondiscrimination policies have complicated life for some evangelical Christian ministries, offers a surprising discovery:

As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.

Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on.

For example, student Andrew Schuman is reported to have described this kind of engagement as asking students “to think critically, question honestly, and link arms with anyone who searches for truth and authenticity.”

Given the interests that motivate this blog, it seems worth encouraging more conversation about the degree to which (and how) such students at these largely secular institutions are engaging questions of vocation, and whether these off-campus evangelical organizations and journals are providing them with an opportunity to do so. And it would be useful if readers of this blog could link to some examples.

‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance’ and ‘Not in God’s Name’

In the November 8, 2015, New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sacks Not in God's Name Irshad Manji reviews

Why recommend this book review, and the books themselves, to those interested in “vocation matters”? Because some in higher education may shy away from even secularized versions of religious discernment and vocationHarris and Nawaz, Islam and the future of toleranceal language because of the connection they see between religion and violence, tout court.

Manji and the authors she reviews can offer helpful nuance and useful perspectives to deploy when the (often exaggerated) religion-violence linkage surfaces in a counseling situation or collegial conversation.

Those wishing to plumb the questions further may be particularly interested in another book on the topic of religion and violence, published a few years back. Its author, William T. Cavanaugh, is a member of the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project and one of the contributors to the Project’s first volume of essays.  Cavanaugh’s book is titled The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).  For another (more popular) take on the topic, see Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Penguin Random House, 2014).

Emilie Wapnick: Why some of us don’t have one true calling

Take a look at Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk.Emilie-footer-line

The blurb on the TED site indicates where Wapnick is taking her viewers:

What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you’re not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you’re not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls “multipotentialites” — who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?

Her message is worth pondering and sharing with students.

Educators have the benefit and obligation of hindsight

I find it useful to think of “vocation” as one of Western culture’s master plots for narrating or making sense of our lives.[1] But we need to recognize that a narrative approach to vocational self-understanding—whether secular or religious—throws into stark relief the differences between the situation 1200px-Rear-view_mirrorof faculty and staff, on the one hand, and the situation of the students with whom they work, on the other.

It is much easier for faculty and staff to tell their stories than it is for students to imagine with any certainty the story that will, eventually, be theirs. And that uncertainty places obligations on educators Continue reading